CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (AP) — SpaceX was on the cusp of launching NASA astronauts into orbit Wednesday, a first for a private company and a giant leap forward for the booming business of space travel.
The planned afternoon liftoff to the International Space Station will be the first of Americans from the U.S. in nearly a decade.
Riding aboard the brand new SpaceX Dragon capsule for the historic test flight will be veteran NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken.
Thunderstorms remained a concern, both at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and along the Dragon’s path to orbit. SpaceX had a split second to launch the Falcon rocket, at 4:33 p.m. EDT, using the same pad where men flew to the moon and the last space shuttle soared in 2011.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Wednesday morning that the weather appeared to be trending in the right direction.
He admitted to being emotional — and nervous.
“We're launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil. We haven't done this really since 2011, so this is a unique moment in time,” Bridenstine told The Associated Press.
“Bob and Doug are cool as cucumbers," he added. "They are absolutely itching to go fly. So these are the best that America has to offer and, yes, it is emotional for me because a lot is riding on this.”
The launch puts Elon Musk's SpaceX in the same league as only three countries — Russia, the U.S. and China, which sent astronauts into orbit in that order.
NASA pushed ahead with the launch despite the coronavirus pandemic, but asked spectators to stay at home to lower the risk of spreading the virus. Beaches and parks along Florida's Space Coast are open again, and local officials and businesses put out a socially distanced welcome mat. Signs along the main beach drag wished “Godspeed SpaceX.”
Hours before the launch, cars and RVs already were lining the causeway in Cape Canaveral, with prime views of the pad.
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence planned to fly into Kennedy, where the guest list was exceedingly limited because of the pandemic. Space center tours were on tap, with Bridenstine as their escort.
NASA had input throughout the entire commercial crew process, including Wednesday's countdown. But in the end, it was going to be SpaceX giving the final go — with NASA’s concurrence.
“SpaceX is controlling the vehicle, there’s no fluff about that,” said Norm Knight, a NASA flight operations manager.
Besides good weather at the launch site, SpaceX is counting on relatively calm waves and wind up the U.S. and Canadian seaboard and across the North Atlantic to Ireland, in case astronauts Hurley and Behnken need to make an emergency splashdown along the route to orbit.
If SpaceX does not launch Wednesday the next try would be Saturday.
The last time astronauts launched from Florida was on NASA’s final space shuttle flight in July 2011. Hurley was the pilot of that mission.
Hurley, 53, and Behnken, 49, are both two-time shuttle fliers.
NASA hired SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 to transport astronauts to the space station, after commercial cargo shipments had taken off. Development of SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner capsules took longer than expected, however, and the U.S. has been paying Russia to launch NASA astronauts in the interim.
Bridenstine noted before launch that NASA astronauts have flown on brand new types of rockets just four times in the history of the country: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and space shuttle. A commercial crew capsule will now be the fifth.
“We’re doing it differently than we’ve ever done it before," he told the AP. "We’re launching on a commercial rocket built by SpaceX, and we’re transforming how we do spaceflight in the future.”